Factory settings

5 months ago 115

For a book that calls itself a collection of short stories, and promises as many as sixteen of them on its contents page, Camilla Grudova’s The Coiled Serpent is curiously short on actual story. There are three or four entries, perhaps, that have the generally accepted requirements of one – action that escalates, characters that change – but that amounts to a conspicuous minority. What readers are principally offered, instead, is a series of scene-settings: of starts to stories, but rarely the whole shebang.

One can almost forgive this in a writer as imaginative and politically engaged as Grudova. In the opening “story”, “Through Ceilings and Walls”, a young woman visits an island to investigate “the purported site of some important Roman remains”. We are not told which island, though from its antiquities and English-speakers we have a pretty good idea. It is not quite a Britain we recognize, however. At the train station all our character can find to buy is “tea in a grey paper cup, a small boiled potato wrapped in foil and a chocolate bar”. The only shop in town is a butcher’s. And back in her shabby guesthouse there are no televisions or newspapers, “no news of the outside world”, only a copy of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher.

Our immediate thought is that this is a Britain of sixty or seventy years past. But then there are the subtle suggestions of a more sinister truth: the fact that the country’s prime minister has been in post “since long before I was born”; the picture of “a royal wedding from long ago”, in which “the bride’s face and hands were blocked out with green crayon scribbles”; the hostility our protagonist incurs for her short hair and masculine clothes. Where we are, it slowly dawns on us, is a Britain as dreamt of by nativist nostalgists; a country divorced not just from the EU, but from modern life entirely; a place where royalty is lionized – providing it conforms. In its very plausibility it is chilling.

But the story doesn’t mature beyond this initial set-up. Rather than cultivate the compelling dystopian mystery she has so painstakingly constructed, Grudova makes a beeline for Act V, abruptly wrapping the whole thing up with some cheap haunted-house theatrics. There is no character development, no narrative. And this is pretty much the template for the rest of the collection. In “Avalon” Grudova quite brilliantly concocts the working environment from hell: a crumbling basement sauna in which young female staff are overworked, underpaid and horrifically abused by the male clientele. But then she does nothing with this either, only remembering at the last second about that thing called plot to rustle up a hasty, tensionless revenge by the workers on the bosses. Her analysis of nationalism and modern working conditions – the two main concerns of the collection – would have a lot more bite with the stories to back it up.

And some proper characters. Grudova’s surrealism has often earned her comparison with Angela Carter; but in her treatment of character, or rather lack of it, she is much closer to Muriel Spark. More interested in societies than individuals, she sets her stories in places such as boarding schools (“Ivor”, “Madame Flora’s”), apartments (“The Coiled Serpent”, “The Apartment”) and workplaces (“The Custard Factory”, “The Poison Garden”), holding in check large dramatis personae by doling out just a couple of defining attributes to each character. This technique came off magnificently in her debut novel, Children of Paradise (2022), a story – and it did have a story – of an exploited cinema workforce that more than justified the author’s place on Granta’s recent Best of Young British Novelists list. In the short form, however, there is simply not the space for her various societies to cohere, and the stories never quite attain that Sparkian comic weave for which they seem to be striving. In the absence of it the characters feel very thin indeed.

A saving grace is the prose. I particularly love Camilla Grudova’s lists; how joltingly odd and miscellaneous they are, as in this description of an eccentric artist’s menagerie: “repulsive small dogs with sunken-in, dirty faces, monkeys, an armadillo, and a white exotic-looking cow who lived in the garden, eating flowers”. Her bald relation of horrors – “I cut out chunks of his lower torso, since it was already open from the bullets, and ate pieces raw, with my hands” – also has an undeniable power. I look forward to seeing these talents better served by the next novel she writes.

George Cochrane is a writer and editor based in Newcastle

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